Still work to be done to overcome the threats to our industry – By Neville Simpson
No one is better placed than those in the construction sector to know how cyclical New Zealand’s economy is – and how difficult that makes it for businesses to have certainty about making long-term plans.
In my two decades with Master Electricians, we have worked with members of the electrical sector as they weathered that boom-bust cycle several times.
You can also add to that the exceptional and unforeseen challenges of the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes, the global financial crisis and the
leaky buildings scenario.
A number of these crises resulted in a huge upsurge in work – and contributed to the severe skills shortage all specialist trade sectors are now experiencing.
The crux of the problem is that due to that cyclical economy, it’s very hard in times when work is tight for businesses to have the confidence to train
staff. No one could have forecast many of these challenges. But when the boom hits, there’s a lot more demand for the small pool of suitable recruits,
and limited time to provide them with training.
The NZ government could, and should, help alleviate much of this problem. As the country’s largest purchaser of infrastructure services, providing more
work during quieter times would give businesses the resources and confidence to recruit and train.
Achieving such outcomes would, however, require greater communication between the government ‘machine’ and industry. Currently, boards and policy-makers
do not consult well, or on a regular-enough basis, with industry organisations and the people they represent.
There is more internal consultation than external. I see that as a real problem, but one that could be easily addressed, with benefits for the government,
industry and our economy. No one benefits when the sector is thousands of people short to meet a voracious demand for construction.
Loss of visibility
Increasing the number of very able applicants for the specialist trade sector is also key to addressing our skills shortage. During my years with Master
Electricians, I have seen apprenticeships ‘slip from view’ as a desirable career path for bright young people. University has been seen, by schools
and parents, as the ‘gold star’ option.
This gradual loss of visibility was exacerbated by major government organisations, like the Post Office, ending its apprenticeship programmes. An inaccurate
perception arose that there ‘weren’t many apprenticeships out there’. However, concerted efforts by training bodies, including the Electrical Training
Company (etco) and Skills (the ITO for the sector) to raise the profile of apprenticeships, is leading to an increase in visibility.
The dramatic developments in technology, the opportunity to earn while you learn, or to work overseas, or start your own business, and the choice to go
on to university later with a stable financial base – these are the messages we need to be consistently putting out to boost that pipeline of able
young people into the trades.
A decade of achievements
Looking back over the past 10 years, I’m proud of what we have achieved. We have introduced a number of apps (including for health and safety), the ability
to issue electronic certification documents, and access to some testing videos.
We have strengthened the Master Electricians brand, brought in a marketing manager and regional managers, and we will soon be introducing a business development
manager, based in Auckland.
We have increased public awareness of our organisation and the industry, in part through raising the profile of our excellence awards and the Master Electricians
Apprentice Challenge. We have also strengthened relationships with our accredited partners, including wholesalers and manufacturers.
It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with the many people and organisations across the construction sector – in particular, it was very satisfying
to be part of the process which led to the Construction Contracts Act being amended to safeguard retention payments for subcontractors.
Still work to be done
Looking forward, I would like to see more members using the Master Electricians brand more widely – on vehicles and paperwork. It is in their interests
to do so.
There is also still work to be done to raise awareness among non-members – and particularly younger members of our industry – of the value to their businesses
of a very strong organisation like Master Electricians. Without it, no one would be speaking up for our industry, and licences, regulations and standards
could be at risk of being watered down.
However, in my view, one of the biggest threats facing the sector is the increasing amounts of products of questionable quality crossing our borders.
Business owners in all trades have had to make decisions around product quality versus cost. Unfortunately, some, including some electrical contractors,
have followed the lowest-cost mentality.
The recent high-profile issue of dangerous electrical cable being fitted in a number of buildings should serve as a warning that it is essential to use
reputable wholesalers to make sure products purchased are compliant.
My final thought for the construction sector is that major elements within it need to talk to one another, and put in place education channels to produce
sound successful businesses that have as a vision ‘coopetition’ rather than competition.
Neville Simpson will step down from his role as chief executive of Master Electricians at the end of the year, after 20 years with the organisation, the last 10 as CEO